The Tech Writer vs. the English Major

As a writer, I know that there are times to break grammatical rules in order to communicate better.

Sometimes, for example, that means choosing “who” over “whom,” so as not to remind my readers of their high school principal.

But for me, when the rules seem to be at odds with my ear, I usually rewrite.

This is because of two competing parts of my brain.

Brain part #1: The tech writer. The tech writer in me just wants to get the information in the reader’s head. This part of my brain doesn’t care about grammar, syntax, or appropriate wording, except as a means to the end of communicating quickly and with as few distractions as possible.

Brain part #2: The English major. This part of me wants to use words “correctly.” It wants to have the answers to all the grammatical questions. When my colleagues read my work, I want them to see that I really know my stuff.

Now, except for very rare circumstances, I’m not being paid to be an English major. I’m being paid to be a tech writer. So I know which part of my brain should get priority.

But if there’s way to make both parts happy then I’ll consider it. And this is why I often end up rewriting.

I’ll come up with a phrasing that sounds good and is clear, but is grammatically questionable. Or I’ll come up with one that is beyond reproach grammatically, syntactically, and semantically, but sounds like a train wreck.

So I rewrite.

Two notes here:

NOTE # 1: If the phrase sounds bad, then it doesn’t matter if it’s correct. If it sounds bad, then you have to rewrite it, period. Being correct doesn’t beat sounding right.

Note #2: It is NOT necessarily the case that if it sounds good and is clear, then I don’t have to rewrite it. Grammar matters to a lot of people, so just being clear doesn’t save me. Many readers will notice a grammatical “error,” and lose their immersion in the writing. Which means that I’m not doing my job. (Not to mention that ungrammatical sentences can cause problems for translators.)

But where are the examples?

Let’s go with possession.

If Bob and Carla share their 1954 Ken doll, then it’s “Bob and Carla’s doll.” It’s the doll that belongs to the unit of “Bob and Carla.”

But if they each have their own doll (with matching tennis clothes and two pairs of shoes), then the dolls are “Bob’s and Carla’s dolls.”

Fine. But to my ear, this starts to sound funny when said in the first person. For example, my wife and I own a house together.

“The house is my wife and mine”? “The house is my wife and me’s”? ”

Can either of these be right? Can they be grammatical? Well, the point is moot, because it sounds weird, so I’d never use it. I may be CURIOUS about whether it’s considered grammatically correct by good writers, but that phrase will never appear in my writing, except as an example.

This surprises non-writers that I work with. They come to me with a question about correctness, and I tell them that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know whether it’s “correct” or not, but it sounds terrible, so toss it.

Am I getting this right? Do you ever find correct grammar to get in the way of communication?



7 Responses to “The Tech Writer vs. the English Major”

  1. July 8, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Nice to see an English major offer this as an approach.

    I come from a technical background, and for me the reader only cares about getting information they understand, if it’s not 100% “English major” correct then it’s not that big an issue.

    We have so many concerns in our profession so I find, frequently, that as long as content reads well and is “good enough” then so be it.

  2. July 8, 2011 at 11:08 am #

    Grammar is an academic discipline that studies language and attempts to explain how it works. There are multiple such explanations and therefore multiple grammars. But they are all attempts at explanation. They are not normative.

    If a sentence communicates a concept clearly to its intended audience, it is correct. If any given set of grammar rules cannot accommodate that sentence, that is a problem with the grammar rules, not the sentence.

    If a biologist discovers an organism that does not fit the current system of biological taxonomy, they do not conclude that the organism is incorrect, but that the taxonomy is incorrect. So it must be with grammar. If you find an effective sentence that does not fit your current grammar, it is the grammar that is at fault, not the sentence.

    It is, of course, common practice for English teachers to adopt a particular grammar and use it as a teaching tool. There is nothing wrong with that practice as long as they recognize that all grammatical systems are an imperfect description of the language. It is when they start bending the language to fit the grammar that they begin to do mischief.

    And they do a great deal of mischief.

  3. July 11, 2011 at 2:31 am #

    Thanks for your comments!

    I should say, on the other side of the coin, that usually the grammar rules are there for a reason, and they can be very helpful.

    For example, sometimes an ungrammatical sentence can SEEM perfectly clear until you break down why it’s ungrammatical, and there you find a point of ambiguity (dangling modifiers are a great example).

    This is especially important when writing for translation, or people who have learned English as second language (as I touched on in an earlier post).

    Also, I’d advocate giving the readers information they understand *without their being distracted* by weird grammar. Clarity is key, but comfort is important, too.

  4. July 11, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    Let’s distinguish weird grammar from weird usage. Weird usage can certainly distract and confuse and create ambiguity.

    Sometimes knowledge of a grammar rule can help your avoid weird usage. But sometimes, following a grammar rule can create weird usage. “to go boldly where no man has gone before” or “boldly to go where no man has gone before” are both weird compared to the natural English “to boldly go where no man has gone before”.

    The “don’t split an infinitive” rule is actually derived from Latin, and has nothing to do with English. “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” is another such rule, which, if applied, often creates weird and convoluted sentences.

    Where grammar and usage align, we may comfortably follow grammar, since it points in the same direction as usage. But when usage and grammar diverge, grammar is in the wrong, and we should follow usage.

  5. July 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    We agree for the most part. But not entirely.

    When you say that you shouldn’t slavishly follow grammar to the disadvantage of usage, well, that’s basically just repeating what I wrote in my post. So obviously I agree with you. It kind of sounds as though you think I don’t, which is weird.

    My points are these:

    It pays to pay attention to grammar for at least these two reasons:

    1. Because it often helps you find things that are ambiguous in your writing.

    2. Because breaking an accepted grammatical rule can make some people notice your writing rather than your message.

    You may personally think that those people are all wrong, but that’s not the point. I don’t write to make philosophical points about usage over grammar. I write to get a message across and ANYTHING that might screw that up is worth thinking about.

    So if I can, I’d rather rewrite it to make it follow accepted grammatical rules AND sound right. If you don’t, then that’s your call, but we have different priorities.

    As for your second and third paragraph, I don’t consider either of those to be legitimate grammar rules, so “breaking” them isn’t really an issue.

    I doubt I could find a single widely-used style or grammar guide from the last 30 years that would claim that a writer should never split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition. (Even Strunk and White don’t make those claims.)

  6. July 11, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    Sorry, you’re right. I do agree with you — we should write in that way which causes the fewest distractions to the reader.

    And I agree that few modern style guides still forbid splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, but I once had to spend half a day assembling authorities to convince a product manager of that.

    Which is what makes not distracting the reader far from a simple matter, because some readers are distracted by violations of school grammar rules, while others are distracted by the circumlocutions that sometimes arise from following those rules. Hi Ho.

  7. July 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    Yes! Even split infinitives might bug some people, misguided though they are.

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